They call it the ‘Davos of the East’, the Krynica Economic Forum. It must be a mark of Europe’s desperate economic straits that I have been invited to speak at this huge economics conference. Thankfully, the question posed by my old friend Andrew Michta, Director of the German Marshall Fund Warsaw was closer to home; what implications does the US ‘pivot’ toward Asia pose for Europe?
I shared my panel with a senior British politician who like so many in the British elite seem to have brought into the whole ‘a Britain on the margins of Europe is a Britain lost’ nonsense. Indeed, after this year’s public demonstrations of polite but firm British patriotism it saddens me deeply that a British people who still believe in Britain are led so woefully by an elite who by and large do not. Talk about lions led by donkeys!
An under-current during my visit here has been the poor state of Anglo-Polish relations. In the past 24 hours I have heard the following condemnations of Britain and its doings: Britain betrayed Poland in World War Two; Britain is irrelevant (a belief official London seems only too happy to encourage); Britain is being replaced by Poland as a European power.
First, the idea that Britain betrayed Poland in World War Two is not just wrong but plain offensive. Britain went to war for Poland’s liberty and then fought on at great cost in the Cold War to support Poland in its struggle for freedom. Yes, the 1945 Yalta Conference abandoned Poland to the Soviets but by then Britain was exhausted militarily and weak politically. It was Washington and Moscow that were calling the shots so to blame Britain for Yalta is plain wrong.
Second, Britain is irrelevant. This chimes with the strategic defeatism of so much of the London elite that I can hardly blame Poles for thinking this. In a sense it is also linked to the third strain of Polish thinking that Warsaw is replacing Britain as a European power. At one level there is some substance to this view. Poland wants to join the Euro “when the time is right”, whereas Britain does not. All the indicators are that Britain is moving inexorably towards an in-out referendum on EU membership, something the Poles would never contemplate given the financial benefits Poland gains from the Union, which of course Britain does not.
However, great country that Poland is some dose of political realism is needed here before Poland makes an historic mistake. The prevailing assumption, certainly in the Polish Foreign Ministry, seems to be that Poland will emerge to join the Germans and the French in the Eurozone directorate (otherwise known as European political union). Poland clearly matters. For example, Warsaw has been instrumental in forming the so-called Weimar Triangle with Germany and France. However, there is little real substance to this initiative, more Bermuda triangle than Weimar triangle with much talking about improved military capabilities going in but nothing much coming out.
Poland is not (yet) Britain. It lacks the economic and military muscle of even a straitened Britain. And, influence in Europe (and beyond) will for the foreseeable future continue to be built on those two pillars whether Britain is in the Euro or not. Poland will thus never replace Britain. In fact, strategic logic would suggest that France and Germany will never fully admit Poland to the Europe-critical Franco-German axis, just as Berlin and Paris has never and will never admit Britain, even if London signed up to the Euro tomorrow. Poland and Britain thus need to work closely together.
What is amazing about this amazing country is that in spite of centuries of powerful neighbors trying to destroy it the Poles are still here slugging. It seems strange then that having fought so hard for its national sovereignty modern Poland seems so keen to sacrifice it in the vague name of ‘Europe’ that could in time further damage the transatlantic relationship. Surely all the lessons of Polish history should be that Poland’s freedom can only be guaranteed by a proper balance between the great powers of Europe.
As an historian I am deeply conscious of Poland’s suffering. If any country ‘won’ the Cold War it was Poland. However, modern Poland needs to put aside its prejudice about Britain and help reset an Anglo-Polish relationship that is as important to Europe’s political stability as ever. But that begs a further question; why can Poland lay aside its historic prejudice about Germany so easily (which is good to see) and not Britain? After all it was not we Brits who invaded Poland sixty-three years ago this week!
London and Warsaw need to put this right.
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.
Photo credit: AFP/John Thys